Daytona II: Tony Stewart preview

ATLANTA (June 27, 2005) - NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart paced this year's Daytona 500 seven times for 107 laps, nearly triple the amount of laps led by anyone else. But when the checkered flag waved, all Stewart had to show for his...

ATLANTA (June 27, 2005) - NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart paced this year's Daytona 500 seven times for 107 laps, nearly triple the amount of laps led by anyone else. But when the checkered flag waved, all Stewart had to show for his efforts was a seventh-place result. It was the second straight year in which the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing led the most laps in the Daytona 500 but didn't win. In the 2004 edition, Stewart led seven times for a race-high 97 laps only to finish second to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The strong run, which was punctuated by Stewart's win in his Gatorade Duel qualifying race and his first career NASCAR Busch Series win the day before, was of little consolation. He wanted to win, plain and simple.

"I think we ran as good a race as we possibly could've run," said Stewart after the Daytona 500. "At least we had a car that was good enough to lead laps. You don't lead laps like that if you don't have a good race car."

When the series rolled into Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway two months later for the second of four restrictor plate races to be run this season, Stewart again had a good race car, and he seemed poised to collect his first career win in a point-paying restrictor plate race. But the same driver who won the Daytona 500 ended up winning at Talladega - Jeff Gordon. Stewart led only two laps, but was a mainstay at the front of the 43-car field. His second-place finish to Gordon was his fourth runner-up result at Talladega.

"One of these days," said Stewart's crew chief Greg Zipadelli from atop the pit box, "we'll win one of these things."

The day which Zipadelli speaks of could very well come this Saturday night when the Nextel Cup Series returns to Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway for the Pepsi 400. The same car - chassis No. 70 - that performed so well earlier this year at Daytona and Talladega returns to the Pepsi 400, crewed by the same people who made it so fast.

That Stewart does not have a point-paying restrictor plate win amongst his 20 career Nextel Cup victories seems to be an anomaly, particularly at Daytona. He has numerous wins at the expansive 2.5-mile oval - just not the kind that pay any points toward the Nextel Cup championship. There are the aforementioned wins in this year's Gatorade Duel and Busch Series races, but back-to-back wins in the Budweiser Shootout in 2001 and 2002 are also on Stewart's resume, as is his Daytona IROC victory in 2002.

Buoyed by his win in Sunday's road course race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and his second-place finish two weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway, Stewart appears due for a point-paying victory at Daytona.

You've been a threat to win at each of the restrictor plate races run this year. How do you see your chances at Daytona?

"I'm not sure I'd call ourselves a favorite, but I think all you have to do is look at our record and you can probably tell where we're going to be. Lately we've been pretty consistent about where we end up at Daytona."

In qualifying for restrictor plate races, the #20 Home Depot Racing Team has been relatively quiet. But when it comes to the race, it's obviously a different story. What has made the #20 team so good in restrictor plate races?

"In the race you have all 43 cars out there at the same time. That's the biggest thing. If our car isn't right I'll wrestle it around the whole day if I have to. I feel like I'm pretty good about knowing when to pick the right holes and where to go and when to go. The pit crew has been a big part of that too. The pit crew always has good pit stops at Daytona and Talladega and that gets us out to help us in those scenarios at the end of the race and gets us in a position to where I can go up there and do my job at that point."

What is your strategy in restrictor plate racing?

"I don't have a strategy. I never have a strategy coming into a plate race because as soon as you try to plan a strategy it's out the window as soon as they drop the green flag. You just get started and try to stay up front. You try to find a line that works and you don't get too worked up when the lane you choose doesn't work. You just worry about getting your car driving the way you want it to so that you're ready to go at the end of the race."

Restrictor plate races always seem to be a crapshoot, where so much of what happens is out of a driver's hands and out of a team's hands. Is being successful in a restrictor plate race just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities presented?

"You need to make sure you've got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities you have to make a very quick decision. You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something there's not much you can do about it."

Is restrictor plate racing similar to road course racing, in that it's such a different animal compared to the majority of the other races on the Nextel Cup schedule?

"It's certainly a different challenge. This is not a race where you can go out and win it by yourself. You have to think about the guys around you. You've got to be confident about the people you're around. If you pull out to make a move, you've got to be confident that the guys behind you are going to move with you. It's not a race that can be won on your own. You need help from other people to get you where you need to go."

How much does the track at Daytona change from the time you were there in February to when you return in July?

"It just gets a lot slicker. Basically, it just gives up a lot of grip. Every time you go back there you know you've got to work on the handling of the car even more so than you have to for the 500. Handling is a very big key to winning that race."

Is a fast car all you need to be successful in restrictor plate races?

"You have to have a fast car. But with that fast car, you've got to have a good team that gets you in and out of the pits fast, and you've got to have a driver who knows what he's doing. Get all that together, along with a little bit of luck, and you can have a good day."

What's the difference between racing at Talladega and Daytona?

"You can run two- and three-wide all day at Daytona. At Talladega you can run three-wide all day easily, and sometimes four-wide. Essentially, Talladega just has an extra lane compared to Daytona, because its track is a little easier to get a hold of mechanically. Handling isn't near as big of an issue as it is at Daytona. Talladega is just about speed, and finding more of it. It's bigger, so its corners are a little bit bigger, which is why handling doesn't seem to be quite as much of an issue."

Patience is an obvious virtue on the short tracks, but how important is it at a restrictor plate track?

"It's the gospel, basically. There are a lot of times when you think you can pull out and pass, but if you do, once you get there you realize that you can't pass. It makes it real critical that you take your time and that you don't get caught up in trying to make a move too fast. Just stay in line, and sometimes you'll have more patience than 20 other guys."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing